The Magician's Book aims to weave together memoir, biography, journalism and literary criticism into a reasonably seamless whole. While writing it, I sometimes found myself wandering down sundry byways that, while interesting to me, ultimately seemed to take the narrative too far afield. On the off-chance that portions of this material will be of interest to some readers, I'm posting these outtakes from the book. Think of this page as comparable to the deleted scenes feature included in many DVDs, but fair warning: None of these extracts have received the benefit of editing by the redoubtable Michael Pietsch or copyediting by the sagacious Jayne Yaffe Kemp. If nothing else, these pages offer ample evidence of how much I owe to both of them.
Did Lewis himself have a Magician’s Book, a story that bewitched him at a crucial age, a reading experience he kept trying to recapture forever after? If I believe, as I do, that my early encounters with the Chronicles helped make me the reader I am today, then which books made Lewis one of the great readers of his generation, and are there traces of them in the Chronicles?
Of one thing we can be sure: Lewis found these books on his own. In Surprised by Joy, he writes that his parents didn’t share his imaginative, dreamy temperament. “Neither had ever listened for the horns of elfland,” as he puts it (paraphrasing Tennyson), and there wasn’t much poetry around the house. His father was a spirited story-teller, but Albert’s material came from the everyday comedies he encountered in courthouses and railway carriages. As a reader, he preferred the political novels of Anthony Trollope and the essays of the Whig historian Thomas Macaulay, a great proponent of the progressive ideals his son would come to mistrust. The earliest literary inspirations Lewis lists include some retellings of the Arthurian legends (by Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, whose satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he savored for the chivalry, ignoring the “vulgar ridicule” Twain directed at it — a delicate operation indeed) and E. Nesbit’s children’s novels, specifically the trilogy comprising Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet.
The author who most captivated Lewis as a boy was William Morris. Now best known as a designer, decorative artist and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris was also a translator, poet and novelist (of sorts) who shared Lewis’ enthusiasim for Norse myths and epics. Lewis came across a copy of Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, in Arthur Greeves’ bookcase in his late teens, and his childhood penchant for “knights in armor” was instantly revived. Before he knew it, “the letters WILLIAM MORRIS were coming to have at least as potent a magic in them as WAGNER.”
At a certain stage in my life -- as a student and later as a professional critic -- I would have considered pointing out the flaws in a book to be my main job. It’s pretty typical for young critics to think that nailing an author for ideological or aesthetic failures is the apex of our craft. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that the real task lies elsewhere, and that even the most sophisticated criticism too seldom ventures beyond the merely analytical.
Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois lies an hour outside of Chicago by train, and if you approach the campus on foot on a fine autumn day, as I did, you, too, might be struck by how badly it wants to look like Connecticut. Red brick buildings with tall white steeples (Wheaton has a lot of churches) rise next to russet leaves against an enamel blue sky — a high school student's fantasy of a small, private New England liberal arts college. This is the sort of architecture usually associated with Congregationist churches, but Wheaton was founded in 1860 by Wesleyan Methodists. Its first president, Jonathan Blanchard, a fiery abolitionist and anti-Masonic crusader, insisted that the college be officially non-denominational, but by the mid-20th century it was a neo-evangelist institution whose most celebrated alumnus was the charismatic minister Billy Graham. (Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and -- oddly enough -- the horror film maestro Wes Craven are two others.) The college motto, "For Christ and His Kingdom" has been carved onto any piece of stone large enough to accommodate it.